GROCKA, Yugoslavia -- In the heart of Slobodan Milosevic country, people bargain for live chickens, haul firewood and try to figure out just what gives with those demonstrators in the nearby capital of Belgrade.
While the daily marches against Milosevic in urban areas have garnered world attention, the Serbian president still seems to have the affection of supporters in rural pockets such as Grocka, miles southeast of Belgrade's city center.
Milosevic's supporters tend to get their news from the tightly controlled state-run media, rather than the independent stations supporting the opposition in the city.
They are upset that anyone would dare to demonstrate against their president.
They look at what's going on in Belgrade with the same sort of disdain that Middle America had for U.S. protesters of the '60s.
"Hooligans, that's all those protesters are," says Ivan Todorovic, a 60-year-old pensioner who sells used electrical plugs in a local market that spills across the cobblestone streets of Grocka, one of the many rural areas that fall under Belgrade's control.
"These protesters are destroying the city," he says.
"They have no sense of what is good. Milosevic is good. He does the most for peace and for developing this country.
"This mess in Belgrade makes him stronger. He will get greater support now. He is a very stable person. People like him and he suits the people."
In a country without widespread polling, it's difficult to gauge the popularity of the man who rode to leadership on the crest of reawakened ethnic passion eight years ago.
Milosevic was named the country's most trusted politician in a recent poll in NIN, an independent journal. But his support had dropped from 26 percent to 16 percent in one month.
Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia also handily won the Nov. 3 federal elections.
But the party was beaten by the opposition in 14 of the 19 !B largest cities in the Nov. 17 local elections.
When those results were annulled by the courts, the demonstrators hit the streets and ignited a crisis.
But in the past few days, the Belgrade demonstrations appear to have reached a plateau, as the students and opposition parties have failed to lure the major trade unions to their cause, although some union members have joined the protests.
Yet even some of those in the city who would normally fully back Milosevic say the government miscalculated when it sought to reverse the local election results.
"The two sides must come out of these events as winners," says Nebojsa Curcic, deputy editor of Politika, a Belgrade newspaper vTC that usually sticks to the ruling party line.
In the early days of the protests, marchers battered the newspaper's headquarters with stones, an act that Curcic labels "a cry of frustration."
Curcic admits that Milosevic's party has been badly damaged in the cities.
The urban areas suffered considerably under the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations for Milosevic's part in starting and supporting the war in Bosnia.
Curcic says the rural areas weathered the sanctions because they were more self-sufficient, able to grow their own vegetables and raise livestock.
"People see President Milosevic as a person who can keep this country together," he says.
"In local elections, people voted against their chiefs, against the managers of hospitals and other firms who were members of the Socialist Party. But nobody wants to talk about the federal results.
"In the provinces, people understand that Milosevic offers peace and the opposition offers chaos," Curcic says.
Down at the local headquarters of the Socialist Party of Serbia, which occupies the best building in Grocka, the workers are only too glad to point out that they won three of four seats in recent elections for Belgrade's city council.
They also vent their rage at the Belgrade demonstrators and pledge their support to Milosevic.
But none of them will speak for the record.
Instead, they call around town and produce a prominent local supporter, Dragan Stanojevic, a 44-year-old dentist who says Milosevic is a "very honest man."
"I think he wants to keep the state and people together, and represent everyone," he says. "In Serbia, we have the rudiments of democracy. President Milosevic started democracy here. But you have to understand, in Serbia, people do not yet know how to lose."
Stanojevic's 19-year-old son, Dobrivoje, is a student at the University of Belgrade, but he refuses to join in the demonstrations. Instead, he studies at home.
"Milosevic has helped us survive," Dobrivoje Stanojevic says. "If someone else had been in power, I don't think we would now be talking of democracy. We'd be talking of rebuilding our destroyed cities and homes."
On the whole, Dobrivoje Stanojevic would like the protesters to go away.
"In Belgrade, you have a place which is usually used for demonstrations," he says. "It is down by the river.
"That's where the demonstrations should be. Not throughout the city. The protesters could spend a year by the river if they wanted to.
"And then, the world press could write about it all. And everyone else would be undisturbed."
Pub Date: 12/12/96